Saint Michael’s Parish Church of Coventry, located in England’s West Midlands, was constructed in the late 14thand early 15thcenturies as one of the largest parish churches in the land. With the creation of the Diocese of Coventry in 1918, it became a cathedral church.
While most great ruined churches and cathedrals in England resulted from the violent dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, the ruins of St. Michael’s are the aftermath of violence in a more recent time. On the night of November 14, 1940, the city of Coventry was devastated by bombs dropped by the German Luftwaffe. The Cathedral burned with the city, having been hit by several incendiary devices. Only the tower, spire, outer wall and bronze effigy and tomb of its first bishop, Huyshe Yeatmsn-Biggs, survived.
A decision to rebuild was made the morning after its destruction not as an act of defiance, but as a sign of faith, trust and hope for the future of the world. Primarily the vision of Cathedral Pro-vost Richard Howard, that decision led the people of Coventry away from bitterness and hatred. One significant result was creation of the cathedral’s Ministry of Peace and Reconciliation, that has provided spiritual and practical support, in areas of conflict throughout the world to this day.
Shortly after the destruction, cathedral stonemason Jock Forbes, noticing that two charred medieval roof timbers had fallen in the shape of a cross, set them up in the ruins. Later they were placed on an altar of rubble with the moving words ‘Father Forgive’ inscribed on the Sanctuary wall. Another cross, fashioned from three medieval nails by a local priest, became known as The Cross of Nails, now the symbol of Coventry’s ministry of reconciliation.
Today ‘Coventry Cathedral’ is in fact twobuildings. The bombed-out ruins of the ‘old Cathedral’ remain as a stark reminder of Christ’s message of reconciliation. Instead of simply rebuilding a replica of the medieval church, leaders of the Cathedral Community at the time courageously decided to build a new Cathedral while preserving the remains of the old one as a moving reminder of the folly and waste of war.
The current St. Michael's Cathedral, built next to the remains of the old, was designed by Sir Basil Spence who was selected as architect for the new cathedral in 1950. It was Spence who insisted that instead of re-building the old cathedral it should be kept in ruins as a garden of remembrance and that the new cathedral should be built alongside, the two buildings together effectively forming one church.
In his book, Ships of Heaven ~ The Private Life of Britain’s Cathedrals, Christopher Somerville notes that when it came to rebuilding Coventry Cathedral following World War Two, the brief given to those who would submit a design was ...
“... ‘not to conceive a building and place an altar in it, but to conceive the altar and create the building.’ The altar should be at the east end, as tradition dictated, but everyone should be able to get a clear view of it. This was a new sensibility echoed in Archbishop Heenan’s brief ten years later for architects competing to design Liverpool’s new Roman Catholic Cathedral: “The High Altar is not an ornament to embellish the cathedral building. The cathedral, on the contrary, is built to enshrine the altar sacrifice. The attention of all who view should be arrested and held by the altar’ (p. 301).
For me, that’s astounding! For, it’s a call to focus on what makes our Christian faith distinctive; a challenge to keep the main thing the main thing.
The Christian faith is not about eternals or exteriors —buildings, budgets, membership statistics or a multitude of programs. It’s about Christ crucified ... and raised! Jesus Christis the main thing!
In his first letter to believers in Corinth, the Apostle Paul describes his own ministry among them saying:
"When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified"(2:1,2).
Earlier in that same letter, he told them:
"Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1:22-24).
Oswald Chambers once said that, “the Church confronts the world with a message the world craves for but resents, because it comes through the Cross of Christ."
However, those who are “the world” aren’t the only ones that struggle with a Messiah on a cross. Lots of Christians are uncomfortable with a Messiah on the cross as well.
Many of those are evangelical protestants who, when they see a crucifix, will say something about Christ no longer being on the cross and so preferring the symbolism of an empty cross. Frankly, I was one of them for a long time.
However, when I was on retreat recently at an Episcopal Benedictine monastery, I found myself transfixed by The Icon Cross mounted on a wall behind the chapel altar. While a crucifix, it beamed with the glory of victory, pointing to the one who overcame death by dying.
“The Cross is the Icon of Christ’s glorious victory and love,” said the descriptive brochure I picked up by the chapel door. “It is foolishness to some, but to us who live in Christ it is the power of God. The cross is the concrete expression of the Christian mystery of victory by defeat, of glory by humiliation, of life by death.”
At the bottom of that Icon, is a rendering of The Descent in to Hell, which comes from the enigmatic phrase in the Apostle’s Creed – “He was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into Hell. The third day he rose again from the dead.”– which some weaken by saying “He descended into death” while some others eliminate it all together.
When contemplating this image at the bottom of the Icon, I was struck by the liberating power of Christ crucified, descended and risen. Peter calls attention to the same in his second letter reminding usthat Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago ...” (2 Peter 3:18-20). I.e., Jesus set the prisoners free, like He said He would in the Nazareth synagogue as recorded in Luke 4 ~ “He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and ... to let the oppressed go free” (4:18).
The Icon’s descriptive brochure interprets the Descent image this way:
"The Descent into Hell expresses the spiritual transcendental reality of the Resurrection and reveals the purpose and results of this descent. The action takes place in the very depths of the earth in hell, as shown by the gaping black abyss. Christ appears not as captive but as Conqueror of hell, the Deliverer of those imprisoned there. By freeing the old Adam, and with him the whole of humankind from slavery to Satan, who is the incarnation of sin, darkness and death, Christ has laid the foundation of a new life for those united with him in to a new reborn humanity. The spiritual raising of Adam is the symbol of the coming resurrection of the body, the first fruit of which is the Resurrection of Christ."
A call “not to conceive a building and place an altar in it, but to conceive the altar and create the building” clearly declares Christ crucified, dead, buried, descended and risen to be the main thing. A building, like any ministry method, resource or activity, is meant to shine the spotlight on Jesus. Jesus is the one who by dying made life possible for us, who as Victor cried from the cross, “It is finished!” and who sets the captives free. He’s the main thing!
During the same war in which the German Luftwaffe devastated Coventry in the Battle of Britain, England’s Royal Air Force (RAF) valiantly defended the skies over their homeland to foil Hitler’s plans for an invasion. Reflecting on the efforts and sacrifice of the RAF, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said in the House of Commons, “Never in the history of mankind have so many owed so much to so few.”
Likewise, when we think of the cross of Christ, and he who died on it, what we must say is: Never in the history of the universe has mankind owed so much to One.
May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whichthe world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. ~ The Apostle Paul in Gal. 6:14